The Ten Days of Atonement: Connecting Heaven and Earth
Rabbi Shay Nave is the director of OTS’s Yachad Program for Jewish Identity
Jewish time is a complicated business. The Jewish calendar is a double calendar of sorts. On the one hand, it follows the seasons and the solar year – the 365 days it takes Earth to orbit the sun. On the other hand, the Jewish calendar is loyal to the moon and its 12 monthly orbits of planet Earth. This means that our complex calendar is constantly trying to strike a balance between these two separate cycles; one might call it an attempt to “maintain a relationship” with both. The Christians, unlike ourselves, only follow the solar calendar, while the Muslims count their years solely using the lunar system. But we have to complicate matters, as always. That’s why this coming year will be a leap year, which means we will be adding a full month to our calendar in order to be on par with the solar cycle.
Our double calendar is a reflection of our double lives. Being Jewish means being a part of the physical world, living and breathing everything it has to offer: nature, science, technology and culture. However, it also means being able to transcend this world by being fully committed to the Divine Revelation at Sinai, aspiring to achieve sanctity and subjecting ourselves to morality. The solar year, which began with Creation (the first of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, the day on which the world “was conceived”), is also a seasonal cycle which takes agricultural time into account, and, as such, denotes the physical dimension and nature itself. The lunar year, which started at the time of the Exodus from Egypt (“This month shall be unto you the beginning of all months…”), sets the time for the Jewish festivals and commemorations, and therefore denotes Divine Revelation and our personal history. It follows that our double and highly complicated Jewish calendar is, in fact, a reflection of the integral Jewish aspiration to connect between Heaven and Earth, in an attempt to be both divine beings as well as earthly ones. This means that the connection between sun and moon becomes a symbol for the bond between nature and Divine Revelation.
A simple subtraction is all it takes to calculate the difference between a solar and lunar year: 10 days and a bit. If one starts counting the days of the year on Rosh Hashana, which begins on the first of Tishrei, it follows that 12 lunar months later, which bring us to the end of the month of Elul, almost 355 days will have elapsed. In order to make up for the 365 days comprising the solar year, we need an additional 10 days (365-355=10). These are the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, known as Asseret Yimei Teshuva – the Ten Days of Atonement!
The Ten Days of Atonement are the days during which each and every one of us, both as individuals and as a community, must engage in introspection in order to determine to what extent we are able to hold onto our “Jewish time” and how well we are able to connect between Heaven and Earth, between the lunar and solar calendars. We all want a piece of heaven. We are all in search of meaning. We all seek out moral values, kindness and sanctity. However, we are all bound tightly to the mundane — to our livelihoods, our bodies, our physical needs and desires. The greatest challenge is to successfully integrate the heavenly and the earthly, solar time and lunar time. The Ten Days of Atonement are that bridge.
At the end of our daily prayers, we recite the passage called Pitum HaKetoret (“Preparing the Incense”) in which we recall the fact that during the time of the Temple, 368 portions of incense were burned each year: “365 portions for each day of the year and three portions which were burned by the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest), on Yom Kippur.” As mentioned above, if incense was first burned on the first day of Tishrei, this means that by the end of the year 355 portions had been offered, leaving them with 10 portions for the Ten Days of Atonement! When all of these had been burned and offered, it was time for the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies and burn the three additional portions of incense. It follows that Yom Kippur concludes and completes this process of tikkun (repair). Yom Kippur merges the solar year count with the lunar year count, making it the ultimate Day of Atonement and joy because it is a day of perfect harmony.
May each and every one of us merit this harmony, and may we all feel that we need not be divided between heaven and earth, between the divine and the mundane; rather, may we feel whole and complete, able to combine our daily physical activities with the spiritual.
Wishing everyone a year of happiness and blessing.
This article was written as part of the “Journeys” series for Tishrei 5782